About David

David is the Museum’s associate curator of paleontology. In addition to running the Museum’s dig program in Seymour, TX and curating exhibits, he’s also unofficial head of The Department of Mysteries, a shadow wing of HMNS that deals with strange goo, unusual fossils, mysterious substances or any other unknown object you'd like to know what to do with.

Diary of a dig: A major bailout, leaping lizards and a tiny discovery in Seymour

Editor’s note: HMNS operates a dig site in Seymour, Texas with the help of some seriously dedicated volunteers who pay no heed to extreme weather, questionable sleeping arrangements and peculiar paleontologists.

Day One

First things first. I set off for the main quarry to find that the tarps I had placed back in December had not fared well in the harsh Seymour, Texas elements. Between extreme, cold, heat and wind, they had degraded and torn. Still, the quarry was partially covered and sections of the tarps could be salvaged. The main pit was full of foul, thick water and would have to be bailed out and allowed to dry (lucky me!).

bailing out

I began the exciting task of removing stakes and dragging off tarps — which might be drudgery if it weren’t for the fact that the shelter we try to provide for our fossils also gets co-opted by much of the wild kingdom. It’s a crapshoot whether you yank and run or gently tease up the edges and check inside before proceeding. Previous memorable encounters have included a huge yellowjacket nest, a skunk to whom I conceded the western side of the quarry for the season (rent-free), and a piteously flopping rat that I thought we had crushed until we discovered that we were disrupting a rattlesnake’s meal.

Seymour centipedeThis year we had dozens of field mice, a large rat and a non-venomous snake. Almost a let down, really.

I waded into the mud and began bailing. I drew off most of the water, left everything uncovered to dry with a partly cloudy sky and headed for lunch.

The Weather Channel didn’t predict the huge thunderstorm that rolled in. “Gully washers” like that can rearrange or wash away exposed fossils in minutes. We raced back to the site to shore up the already soggy bone. But with a just over a mile to go, our luck ran out; the roads became saturated and impassable. So volunteer Shana Steinhardt and I poncho-ed up  and started the mile hike to the site through the mud.

Thankfully the damage wasn’t too bad, and we were able to secure the exposed fossils. But the storm had blocked our access to the main site and stranded the truck for almost two days. Each step was a slippery mess, and our boots were perpetually coated in a pound of mud.

After the rain, though, many animals emerged and we found this muddy Texas Horned Lizard, an endangered Texas species:

Seymour, Texas | July 2012

Day Two

After the usual 6 a.m. breakfast at the New Maverick, we headed out to prospect on the southern, drier edges of the ranch. The heat was powerful (over 100 degrees) but the rain added to the humidity and made things worse for the crew.

We opted to prospect sandstones, which, from our experiences at the ranch, tend to favor the large-finned herbivore, Edaphosaurus. After four hours of prospecting, we’d found a few scraps and decided to head in for lunch.

The heat and the humidity took its toll, and most people opted to stay cool in the afternoon. The landowner stopped by and mentioned an area of the ranch that had “unusual rocks” that we had never been to, so some of the hardier guys set off to investigate. It turned out to be quite an interesting place. The site was covered with trace fossils, burrows, root casts, feeding trails, coprolites — of which a representative sample was collected. Two would prove very exciting and lead to a great find: check it out!

Seymour, Texas | July 2012
An unidentified invertebrate

Watch volunteer Leigh Cook talk about our other find — a serrated baby Dimetrodon tooth!

100 Years – 100 Objects: Pholidocercus hassiacus

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from David Temple, the museum’s curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org/ – throughout the year.

Early Insectivore, Pholidocercus hassiacus

CHI_7711LWe are fortunate to have a few fossils from the Messel Pit in the Museum’s collection.  Located near Darmstadt, Germany, the quarry was originally a pit mine for oil shale. Abandoned when the mine no longer was profitable, plans were made to convert the pit to a landfill. The site was eventually saved and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of the spectacular number and preservation of the fossils found there.

During the Eocene, the quarry was a deep lake. The lake bottom, an anoxic, silty ooze, was toxic to bottom-dwelling fauna. With nearly 50 million years of hindsight, the inhospitable waters created an environment that guaranteed dead animals which had drifted to the lake floor were not scavenged and their remains mixed by the daily activities of bottom dwelling animals. The lake accumulated the remains of algae, bacteria, insects, spiders, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals – potentially anything calling the lush tropical forest home. A dark side to the fossil accumulation was spurred by releases of Co2 and hydrogen sulfide from the lake that poisoned and suffocated large numbers of animals living near the lake. One of the most famous recent Messel fossils to come to light is Darwinius masillae or “Ida”, an early primate.

This early relative of a hedge hog was covered with bristle hairs similar to modern hedge hogs but had scales on its head and tail. Traces of the bristle hairs can be seen as a faint black silhouette around the fossil. The stomach contents are also preserved and visible. This perfect articulation of the skeleton and the tantalizingly preserved traces of soft tissue point to a quick burial, absent of scavenging and bioturbation – a hallmark of the unique preservation found at the Messel Pit.

Wander among prehistoric beasts in the Paleontology Hall, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Spadefoot Toad

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from David Temple, the museum’s curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org/ – throughout the year.

Spadefoot Toad, Eopelobates wagneri

CHI_7713We are fortunate to have a few fossils from the Messel Pit in the Museum’s collection.  Located near Darmstadt, Germany, the quarry was originally a pit mine for oil shale. Abandoned when the mine no longer was profitable, plans were made to convert the pit to a landfill. The site was eventually saved and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of the spectacular number and preservation of the fossils found there.

During the Eocene, the quarry was a deep lake. The lake bottom, an anoxic, silty ooze, was toxic to bottom-dwelling fauna. With nearly 50 million years of hindsight, the inhospitable waters created an environment that guaranteed dead animals which had drifted to the lake floor were not scavenged and their remains mixed by the daily activities of bottom dwelling animals. The lake accumulated the remains of algae, bacteria, insects, spiders, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals – potentially anything calling the lush tropical forest home. A dark side to the fossil accumulation was spurred by releases of Co2 and hydrogen sulfide from the lake that poisoned and suffocated large numbers of animals living near the lake. One of the most famous recent Messel fossils to come to light is Darwinius masillae or “Ida”, an early primate.  

Though well preserved, these fossils are extremely delicate. The shale encasing the fossils has a high water content and crumbles when dried. It wasn’t until amateur collectors perfected the technique of embedding the fossil in resin that they could be fully appreciated.

This amphibian likely lived near the shore of the lake, burying itself by day and emerging at night to feed and mate. The stiff body posture hints at a last spasmodic leap from being poisoned by the release of toxic suffocating gasses from the lake.

Wander among prehistoric beasts in the Paleontology Hall, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Brachiopod

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from David Temple, the museum’s curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org/ – throughout the year.

Brachiopod, Grandaurispina kingorum
(Permian, Willis Ranch Member, World Formation, Brewster County, Texas)

CHI_7629The Glass Mountains are famous for silicified fossils of Permian age, such as this Brachiopod. Unique build-ups of fossil shells, both wave-generated accumulations of dead shells and massive brachiopod-dominated reefs, produced by the complex interactive growth of millions of marine invertebrates that occur in the Glass Mountains.

Fossils from the Glass Mountains are of special interest because of their level of detail. Blocks of limestone from the Glass Mountains can be treated with weak acids to dissolve the limestone from the acid-resistant silicified fossils. This process often leaves unharmed the delicate spines and ornamentation found on some brachiopods and bivalves.

Wander among prehistoric beasts in the Paleontology Hall, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org.